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Explaining Russia's True Presence in Syria

4 MINS READSep 25, 2015 | 18:51 GMT

Stratfor has been closely tracking the Russian buildup of military power at Bassel al Assad air base in Syria, charting the uptick of forces throughout September. Aside from the air assets and defensive ground capacity identified at the air base, reports indicate potential Russian activity at several other locations across the Syrian coastal region.

Widely circulated satellite photography dated Sept. 13 revealed construction at the Istamo weapons storage facility and the appearance of tents at the al-Sanobar military facility south of Latakia. Though this led to conclusions of a possible Russian military presence at those facilities, more recent and detailed imagery provided by our partners at AllSource Analysis seems to contradict this assertion.

Satellite imagery of the al-Sanobar military complex from Sept. 23 does not show any sign of a notable Russian military presence. The tent camp that was present in the Sept. 13 imagery is nowhere to be seen. Also, no particular Russian military equipment or vehicles can be identified. Russian forces likely move through the area frequently because of their continued activity at the port of Latakia, the activity at the nearby Bassel al Assad air base, and the transit of Russia advisers and trainers to the Syrian front lines, where they are embedded with military units. Because of this, it is possible that the Sept. 13 imagery caught a temporary encampment of Russian forces operating in the Syrian coastal area, as opposed to a more sustained deployment of combat forces to the al-Sanobar complex.

At the Istamo weapons storage facility, there are a number of well-defined changes. Large concrete surfaces have been put in place or are under construction, and the assembly of a potential fuel depot is underway. The process of ground clearing and early paving was already visible in the widely circulated Sept. 13 imagery, and the more recent Sept. 23 imagery shows the progress of construction. Though this is similar to the construction underway at the Bassel al Assad air base, there are strong indications that the Istamo facility is not intended for use as a base by Russian combat forces.

AllSource Analysis identified the helicopters that are visible on the paved surface at Istamo as transport helicopters and Kamov Ka-27 or Ka-28 helicopters. The Syrian military uses these types of military helicopters, and the Ka-27 (or its export version, the Ka-28) is the exact type of helicopter the Syrian navy had previously operated out of the Bassel al Assad air base. However, those types of aircraft are no longer visible at Bassel al Assad, and the majority of equipment there now likely belongs to Russia.

Though it cannot be directly proved through the latest imagery, the limited Russian presence at the Istamo weapons storage facility is likely the result of a relocation of local forces. An expanded Russian contingent at the Bassel al Assad location would have displaced the Syrian naval aviation unit previously stationed there. Setting up a major air base requires space, time and protection. The exclusion of indigenous Syrian units affords the Russians a higher degree of operational security. Moscow will want to run the base — and any subsequent operations staged from there — independent of Damascus.

While there is indeed Russian activity in Syria outside of Bassel al Assad air base, the airfield remains the most sizable concentration of Russian air and ground combat forces in Syria. Russian force elements will continue to disembark at the ports of Latakia and Tartus because the sea bridge is the logical offloading point for large amounts of personnel and heavy equipment in bulk, but the center of gravity of the Russian deployment remains Bassel al Assad.

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